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Syria and Karabakh

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The Syrian civil war is obviously destabilizing—for example, there are hundreds of thousands of refugees in Jordan, and Lebanon’s Hezbolla is fighting on behalf of the Assad regime and exacerbating the Shia-Sunni axis of the conflict. But it is also destabilizing in non-obvious ways.
Syria has a significant Armenian population, largely centered in Aleppo, where many of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide settled. The Armenians are a Christian community, and like other Syrian ethnic and religious minorities, have tended to support the Assad regime. In part because Assad’s Baath party has a secular ideology, in part because Assad’s Alawi community is itself a religious minority, the regime has not persecuted minority groups. (That is, it has not persecuted minorities as minorities—all Syrian have been oppressed under the Assads.)
The Syrian conflict has followed the script of the so-called Arab Spring: demands for freedom coalesce into an anti-government movement which is eventually co-opted by Islamists. In Syria’s case, one consequence is increasing insecurity for Christian minorities like the Armenians. As a result, the Armenians of Syria are fleeing the country.
Some are going to Nagorno-Karabakh. Karabakh is the Armenian-majority region which was part of Azerbaijan from 1923 to 1988. In 1988 Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war which led to Karabakh’s being detached from Azerbaijan—“liberated” according to the Armenians, “occupied” according to the Azeris.
Azerbaijan views with the alarm Karabakh's welcoming of the Armenian refugees from Syria. Although the number of Armenian settlers remains small, the Azeris see the growth of the Armenian population in Karabakh as a provocation that strengthens Armenia’s grip on the disputed territory.
What makes this particularly dangerous is that Armenia’s big neighbor to the west, Turkey, is allied with Azerbaijan and endorses its view of the Karabakh situation. Ercan Citlioglu, the head of the Center for Strategic Studies of Bahcesehir University in Turkey, has declared: “Azerbaijan has the right to intervene in the attempt to resettle in Nagorno Karabakh the Armenians not only from Syria, but also from anywhere and change the demographic situation there.”
The fact that Karabakh has simmered for more than 20 years doesn’t mean it can’t suddenly boil over. The arrival of the Syrian Armenians could be the spark that moves Azerbaijan from sabre-rattling to action. Turkey might then intervene on behalf of Azerbaijan. The Muslims of Chechnya, Dagestan and the rest of the northern Caucasus might try to turn the war into a jihad. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran could support their ally, Armenia. It might be hard for Georgia to remain aloof from the conflict.
Thus, it is conceivable that the war in Syria will indirectly lead to a general war in the Caucasus.




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